Desert Heroes: Matt Nelson

Desert Heroes: Matt Nelson

Erem has decided to highlight some “Desert Heroes” that help celebrate, educate about, and protect our favorite ecosystem. Once you learn the back stories of these incredible people and what they are striving for, we are sure they will fill you with inspiration, too. We’re kicking off this series with one of the most important trail advocates in the world and a leading conservation voice in the Southwest: Matt Nelson, Executive Director of the Arizona Trail Association (ATA).

Matt has led the ATA, the nonprofit charged with caring for the 800-mile Arizona National Scenic Trail (AZT) that runs from Mexico to Utah through the length of Arizona, and attracts hundreds of thousands of outdoor recreationists each and every year. Matt’s been at the helm of the ATA since 2012, but has been designing trails, conducting archaeological surveys, organizing volunteer trail construction, and exploring the AZT on foot, mountain bike, and horseback for 20 years. 

Beyond his immense contributions to advancing the AZT and all of the good that comes with that like increasing access to the outdoors and ecosystem conservation, Matt has also worked as a Grand Canyon backpacking guide, archaeologist, Native American repatriation coordinator, editor, and freelance photojournalist. He is the primary author of Your Complete Guide to the Arizona National Scenic Trail and the Arizona Trail Junior Explorer Handbook, and has published more than 500 articles. Matt also serves on the Arizona State Committee on Trails, and on the Board of Directors for Natural Restorations, Bikepacking Roots, and La Tierra del Jaguar. 

We caught up with Matt in between excursions in the Sonoran Desert with his daughter to interview him. Enjoy!


  • What’s the number one piece of gear that goes with you everywhere outdoors?

  • Cowboy hat. Sun protection is the #1 thing that will keep me hiking, biking, climbing and playing outdoors, so I never leave home without a wide brim breathable lid. Cowboy hats made of palm leaves are my favorite.

  • We know that your #1 may be top secret but, what’s your runner-up favorite dispersed campspot?

  • There's a spot near the East Rim of Grand Canyon along the Arizona Trail Passage 40 where you look out over the most inspiring landscape while nestled into the pine forest. There is nothing in the world like watching the sun rise over the Navajo Nation, Hopi Mesas, Little Colorado River, Saddle Mountain Wilderness and Vermilion Cliffs -- all from the comfort of your sleeping bag.

  • For the people reading this, what's the one thing you want every reader here to think about/do/know in regards to the outdoors/desert?

  • Aldo Leopold said, "We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect."

  • Who’s a hero of yours?

  • Wangari Maathai. For me, she is a reminder of what one person can do in their lifetime to positively impact the environment around them and impact the lives and consciousness of others in a big way.


  • If I could only hike one section of the AZT which section would you recommend and why?

  • Passage 38 - Grand Canyon Inner Gorge. The segment of trail from Bright Angel Campground to Ribbon Falls, known as The Box, is a transformative experience. Gazing up at thousands of vertical feet of colorful rock and billions of years of Earth's history while listening to the sweet song of the creek and looking for chuckwallas and pink rattlesnakes among the rocks is pure bliss.

  • What is a book, documentary, or podcast that you want everyone to read/see/listen to?

  • For books, I'd have to say that Cadillac Desert (Marc Reisner) is an absolute must-read -- especially in this era of disappearing water in the West. For documentaries, I really love Desert Dreams: Five Seasons in the Sonoran Desert. That film includes an intimate look at the plants, animals and elements of the Sonoran Desert, and is a legit documentary but without any narration or human perspective.

  • Okay, and finally: what’s the 1 request you want to make of someone reading this article?
  • Embrace stewardship as a personal responsibility. Get involved. Make a difference!  


    There you have it. Hopefully you’ve now added a new read to your Audible list, put a sun hat in your online shopping cart, and have an AZT hike trip in the works! We want to thank Matt many times over for all the wonderful work he does and for allowing us to pepper him with questions and get to know the man behind the cowboy hat. We at Erem feel privileged to work with Matt in our capacity as official footwear of the Arizona Trail. 


    Erem Editing Team

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